John Lewis boss calls for public inquiry into decline of UK high streets

The boss of John Lewis has called for a royal commission into Britain’s high streets, which she said risk becoming “looting grounds” for crime and overrun with vacant shops.

Dame Sharon White, chairwoman of the John Lewis Partnership, which also owns Waitrose, said some UK towns and cities have become “shells of their former selves”.

“Boarded-up shops left vacant, dwindling numbers of banks and post offices… and, in their place, seemingly endless rows of vaping and charity shops,” she said, writing in The Telegraph.

“For too many local residents, the heart has been ripped out of their community.”

John Lewis Partnership chairman Sharon White
John Lewis Partnership chairwoman Dame Sharon White said ‘only a royal commission’ can revive UK high streets for decades to come (John Lewis/PA)

The retail boss said a royal commission – which is an independent public inquiry – could give them a much-needed boost.

There needs to be a “holistic view” of the problems facing high streets, rather than individually investigating issues such as tax, crime, planning, housing, and environmental policy, she argued.

The British Retail Consortium said in a report in July that some 6,000 shops have closed down over the past five years, largely due to “crippling business rates and the impact of the Covid lockdowns”.

Dame Sharon’s call came as some of the country’s biggest retailers urged the Chancellor to freeze their property taxes, saying a rates increase could add around £400 million a year to retailers’ bills.

Major chains including Tesco, Marks & Spencer and B&Q are among those who wrote a letter to Jeremy Hunt on Monday in a bid to prevent costs running too high for already under-pressure businesses.

Dame Sharon said retailers are “unfairly hit” by business rates, adding that a royal commission could develop proposals for a fairer system which keeps up with the changing face of the high street and shopping habits.

She added: “High streets have long represented the spirit – the centre – of local communities. Yet they risk becoming a looting ground for emboldened shoplifters and organised gangs.”

Meanwhile, 10 of the UK’s biggest retailers have agreed to fund a police operation to crack down on shoplifting, dubbed Project Pegasus.

John Lewis is among the companies which are expected to fund around £600,000 for the project which will utilise CCTV pictures and facial recognition technology to get a better understanding of shoplifting operations.

Dame Sharon said the UK needs a comprehensive plan to stop organised gangs, and called for Scottish legislation that makes the abuse of a retail worker an offence to be brought in nationwide.

“Only a royal commission can set out a fresh vision for a prosperous high street for decades to come”, she concluded.

John Lewis is set to unveil its half-year financial results on Thursday.

Earlier this year, the group reported a £78 million loss before exceptional items for the latest financial year.